Sometimes when a player gets released or made available via trade, the media rushes to draw a connection where there simply isn’t any. Just because a coach once worked with a player doesn’t mean he liked that player, and just because the player once worked with the coach doesn’t mean that was the best fit for him to be productive on the field.

But when it comes to a potential David Johnson-Bruce Arians reunion, I promise you we are not making that mistake. This is a connection that very well could happen if Johnson is becomes available (more on that later), as Arians loves Johnson, was critical of the running back’s usage under the Steve Wilks’ regime in Arizona, and is in desperate need of third down help out of the backfield in Tampa Bay.

“I don’t think there is a ceiling for him,” Arians said of Johnson on Good Morning Football during the 2017 offseason. “He can run the ball, he could start at wide receiver. He just goes out with the wide outs and runs routes. We just have to watch that we don’t overwork him.”

Then, early during the 2018 season when Arians was out of coaching and working in the media, he was highly critical of the usage of Johnson in Mike McCoy’s offense under Wilks.

Cardinals RB David Johnson
Cardinals RB David Johnson – Photo by: Getty Images

“I just don’t like the use of David Johnson in this offense,” said Arians. “David Johnson is a premier wide receiver and I don’t see him out of the backfield creating the mismatches that he should be out creating and opening up things for Larry Fitzgerald. David Johnson, people didn’t realize, he opened up stuff for Larry Fitzgerald because he was used in the slot opposite, or we always put him in position to be opposite of Larry and pick your poison.”

Substitute Bucs Pro Bowl wide receiver Chris Godwin for Fitzgerald … are you thinking what I’m thinking?

Now, is Johnson the same player he was early in his career under Arians? No, he certainly hasn’t been, and last year he looked like he was running with a piano on his back. Injuries have slowed the once-coveted back, but they have been more nagging injuries than ones that would cause concern for his future.

At the end of the 2016 season there was a nasty-looking knee injury that somehow turned out to be just an MCL sprain. Then Johnson lost his 2017 campaign in the opener when he dislocated his wrist to a degree that required season-ending surgery. In 2018, he was healthy, but relatively unproductive compared to his usage under Arians, posting just 940 yards rushing with an average of 3.6 yards per carry.

In 2019, Johnson was an afterthought in new head coach Kliff Kingsbury’s offense, faring far better as a part-time receiver than a rusher. Johnson’s 36 catches for 370 yards and four touchdowns showed he can still be a weapon in the passing game, but he showed very little decisiveness or burst with the ball in his hands as a rusher.

Now, why would the Bucs be interested in a player like that? Because Johnson has never been supremely fast, but he has still shown the ability to be elusive and tough to bring down in space, as well as having wide receiver-level ball skills for a running back.

That’s a running back getting off press coverage and then making a tough adjustment on a ball that wasn’t well-placed. These plays aren’t outliers either; Johnson has tremendous hands, can play out of the slot opposite Godwin when the Bucs go empty and make life very difficult on linebackers in coverage, especially on vertical routes. He may not be a burner, but he still whoops certain match-ups with his polished skill set and can make plays down the seam, which is something Arians loves.

The best part about a Johnson addition is that it means several things for the Bucs’ current backfield, and all of them are good. Ronald Jones II can still be the more featured ball carrier on early downs, allowing him to build on an exciting finish to the 2019 season where he rushed for 724 yards and six touchdowns while averaging 4.2 yards per carry. Peyton Barber can be allowed to walk in free agency, while Dare Ogunbowale can remain in his role as a special teams/third-down back, who can be all-around serviceable in the event of an injury. Johnson can also be used on the field with any of the aforementioned backs, and be a wide receiver candidate that relieves some of the depth issues Tampa Bay currently has at the position.

Cardinals GM Steve Keim and former Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians
Cardinals GM Steve Keim and Bruce Arians – Photo by: Getty Images

Now here’s the issue, Johnson’s contract is brutal to move. Although reports are out there that Johnson may be cut, that remains a pretty unlikely outcome. It’s possible that the Cardinals could want to shed his contract badly enough to release him, but he would count for more against their cap in dead money this season than he would on the actual roster.

I asked salary cap and contract expert Ian Whetstone (Follow him on Twitter @IanWhetstone – you won’t be sorry, the dude is extremely sharp) about the possibility of the Cardinals trading Johnson given his albatross of a contract and the significant reservations that a new team might have about his recent production profile.

“The new team would have to pay $10.2 million, plus a $300,000 roster bonus, plus up to $750,000 in per-game roster bonuses (if he’s active all year, they’ll pay the full $750,000),” Whetstone said. “The base salary is already fully guaranteed, plus they’d be on the hook for $2.1M of his 2021 base that vests to fully guaranteed on March 18 of this year.”

Bottom line: nobody wants to pay Johnson, who is 28, over $11 million this season, especially with anything guaranteed for next year. And nobody is going to want to trade an asset for that type of a hit either, even a late Day 3 pick.

Clearly the Cardinals want him gone, as the rumors have been swirling for months now and Johnson didn’t receive more than five carries or more than two targets in a single game from Week 7 on. Right now Arizona is in an extremely poor position, as they need to move on from Johnson, but it hurts worse to release him than to keep him, and nobody is going to trade for him straight up at his cost (Johnson is slated to be the third-highest paid running back in the NFL this season).

Cardinals RB David Johnson
Cardinals RB David Johnson – Photo by: Getty Images

Still, a solution might be possible, albeit certainly abnormal.

“What I could see on the fringes of possibility would be, say, signing a restructured deal with a $5 million signing bonus and a $5.2 million guaranteed base this year (or whatever combination both sides could find suitable), with the understanding that he’s being traded to Tampa for some nominal compensation,” said Whetstone. “Then he gets his full guaranteed money, but the two teams split who pays it. So new team pays less, Arizona gets off the hook for some, he gets out of Arizona like he hypothetically wants, and in return he’s giving up the vested guarantee of $2.1 million for 2021.

“I’d still call it unlikely, but if you’re looking for something creative to get him moved, under the assumption that he wants out and would give a little up to come to Arians, that’s how I could see it happening.”

Johnson was vocal about being unhappy with his role in Kingsbury’s offense last season, saying in December, “Any NFL player, if you’re a competitor, if you’re not on the field, you’re obviously going to be upset about it.”

He has always spoken highly of Arians since the head coach’s departure from Arizona, as almost all of Arians’ former players do.

Although these kinds of compromised trades are rare, so is the Cardinals’ situation with Johnson. It is rare for a player to be one of the highest-paid players in the league at his position and also almost certainly be preparing to ride the bench as the team’s second- or even third-string running back this season. The team has also been vocal about wanting to re-sign Kenyan Drake, and they surely aren’t going to want two highly-paid running backs on the roster of a five-win team.

Although Whetstone is probably correct that based on history that this kind of move is unlikely, if there were ever a time for it, this is it. Arizona is going to have to compromise to get Johnson off their books, and Tampa Bay has plenty of cap space and flexibility to compensate Johnson enough to keep him happy. They’ll also have a role for him, a coach that knows how to maximize his skill set, and a backfield that could benefit from Johnson’s presence.

Jon Ledyard is PewterReport.com's newest Bucs beat writer and has experience covering the Pittsburgh Steelers as a beat writer and analyzing the NFL Draft for several draft websites, including The Draft Network. Follow Ledyard on Twitter at @LedyardNFLDraft
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FLBoy84

I’m in. Couple the fact that chances are he’s rejuvenated by the change of scenery, could be a very solid addition as long as the price is right. Between the prospect of adding him, along with re-signing key players on D and the QB situation, some tough decisions looming for BA, Licht and the FO.

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tpeluso

I’m in too. It’d be nice if Arizona releases him and eats his current contract as a whole, but it’s workable too under the alternative scenario proposed (Johnson signs a restructured deal in which he takes a slight pay cut and the salary cap hit is spread out between the Cardinals and Bucs, and we give up nothing more than a late-round pick). This would allow us to focus on OL in the draft (we NEED to pick up at least 3 players minimum there) regardless of what ultimately happens at QB (although I’m firmly in the camp of keeping… Read more »

BUC-ASS-BOB

Arians ,Johnson ,Rivers A top lineman and this team could see playoffs 2020
But if they plan on leading the league in interceptions again next year with Jameis there’s no sense paying a dime for Johnson Expensive running backs don’t do you any good when you’re out of the playoffs in early October!

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BigSombrero

dim-ass-bulb

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SammyRebel

Please do not trade for this guy for any reason, I’m all for DJ coming to Tampa, but let’s just let the cardinals release him play some hard ball for once, Jason Licht is good at waiting for players anyways, best case scenario Rojo #1 lead back, DJ gets released, we sign him he’s our #2 then we still draft a RB in rounds 2-4 whichever, I’m still all for KAREEM Hunt btw too

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FLBoy84

A few solid options out there in free agency for sure, with more to be added. Hunt, Hyde, Gordon, Powell, Drake, Allen, and Howard just to name a few. Not all are going to be able to get top $$, so should be able to grab a bargain at some point.

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Steven007

At this point we might be able to get Hunt for $10 an hour…

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BigSombrero

That would be paying too much

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CrackerBall

“It’s possible that the Cardinals could want to shed his contract badly enough to release him, but he would count for more against their cap in dead money this season than he would on the actual roster”

After reading this, I doubt he is going anywhere…

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fredster

It’s a long shot. Even if he did end up here not sure he still is as good as he was.

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pewtergirl2010

I had DJ on my fantasy team and he was a top scorer until week 7. He got hurt and pretty much was kicked to the curb.

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Steven007

Ugh, accidentally downvoted, sorry!

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Dman

Poor production the past three years makes DJ hard to justify at $10m. And with the injuries, is he really an All-Pro caliber guy, and probably 29 years old by start of the season. Reminds me of Gruden bringing in Charlie Garner.

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FLBoy84

Charlie was solid back in his youth, but never had close to the production DJ has had. No question though his health and fitness level need to be evaluated. Even at 75%, DJ’s an improvement over both Barber and Dare, but the cost needs to be right for sure.

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Spitfire

Which is why they are suggesting something like splitting the contract obligations. At 5 mil, having a RB Receiver able to line up would open up a part of the game we didn’t have last year. Line up him and Jones on the backfield and run the run pass option, Defenses might actually be thrown off for once instead of just sitting on the pass and waiting to pick it off and Leave us wondering why there are so many INTs… I think for the right deal it would be worth a shot, even if we do Draft a RB…… Read more »

76Buc

RIP Kirk.

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Bucsfan1983

I’d rather draft J.K. Dobbins

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BigSombrero

Hell yeah. I’d be happy with Dobbins, Swift, or Taylor. Let someone else try to “revive” the career of a constantly hurt running back.

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Mee Loopa

Why don’t trade for him Osweiler style? If we pick up DJ plus his contract and get an extra pick for it. What about a third rounder? Or we get a fourth round but swap all the picks after the first round.

Just dreamin’

I’d take DJ, but just as long he’s coming cheaper.

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drdneast

I don’t know who Johnson’s agent is but if I was a player I sure as hell want him working my next deal.
Sorry, Johnson isn’t worth even 10 mill.

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FLBoy84

That’s cheap, his cap hits are $14M & $12M in ’21 and ’22 lol. To be fair, when he signed his extension in ’18 only he and Le’Veon Bell had averaged 130-plus scrimmage yards per game as a starter from ’15-’17 and he had also scored the third-most total touchdowns (33) during that time, despite missing 15 games in 2017. Still a HUGE overpay considering the standard RB market. Glad Keim’s not our GM at least.

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BigSombrero

Im reminded of the ghost of Doug Martin. Is Johnson a shell of his former self?

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FLBoy84

He seems to have lost a step, but not sure I’d say he’s a shell of his former self. More like maybe still a bit injured and unmotivated and burned out by the situation he was in, though it’s impossible to know for certain. To be fair, Martin couldn’t hold DJ’s jock strap, even in his best years. DJ was truly dominant for a sustained period and a much more well-rounded back. Believe he still has enough juice left in the tank for a 2-3 year deal. Would be amazing to get him on a one year prove-it deal like… Read more »

BigSombrero

Couldn’t hold his jock strap? Geez… I wasn’t sure about Johnson’s stats because I don’t follow the Cards closely. Both players only played a full 16 games twice in their careers. They were their best seasons. Here is the comparison: Martin 2012 – 1926 total yds(1454 rush, 472 rec), 12 TDs, 1 fumble 2015 – 1673 total yds(1402 rush, 271 rec), 7 TDs, 5 fumbles Johnson 2016 – 2118 total yds(1239 rush, 879 rec), 20 TDs, 5 fumbles 2018 – 1386 total yds(940 rush, 446 rec), 10 TDs, 3 fumbles Johnson had more TDs but also more fumbles lost, other… Read more »

Borkdog

i gotta great offer, we help offset David Johnson’s losses to AZ, but need some help back?! We can offer AZ a potentially great TE for your young QB, but would like a deal on a good CB? hmmmmm.. (trade PP for OJ), get two for price of one but benefits both teams!! Win-Win! That ALWAYS works. Get solid RB, and top DB to help our secondary. Damn love it?! BA get on phone and work some magic???!!! Get two huge needs in free agency-RB and CB, then work on OL and DL in Draft and FA market. Gets BUCS… Read more »

FLBoy84

Like Peterson, but he’s in the last year of his deal and we’d def need to renegotiate his $13M cap hit before bringing him in…

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surferdudes

Killins Jr., RB UCF, would be nice pick up later in the draft depending how he runs the 40. He might be the fastest player in the draft. He ran between the tackles at UCF, but is a great route runner, and receiver out of the back field. Great returner also. Point is, you can find backs cheaper, with less ware, and tare in the draft.

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Dman

Again, both star RB’s in the Super Bowl were undrafted FA’s. Put money into the O line.

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drdneast

I like how you think Dman but we don’t need to put anymore money in there, we just need better players. Marpet is good but not great and overpaid. Same with our center. Smith is average as is our second year RG who is still developing. Dot, who has played his guts out for the Bucs, is on his last leg.
Anyone wonder why we can’t run the ball consistently and gave up over 40 sacks last year.

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FLBoy84

Like Marpet, but he and Smith definitely lack an edge and aggressiveness to their game for certain.

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Kimba

Hard pass, no reason the Bucs should get stuck with Arizona’s mistake. David johnson is injury prone and and old. Last year he was awful!He has lost any quickness he may of had! Why go down this rabbit hole? Rather get a big healthy back in the draft. David Johnson is not woth the money the Bucs have to shell out and not worth any assets, there are other trades to be made. We will need to move one of our tight ends but not for David Johnson!

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Johnny Cannons

I think it’s a little amusing that a lot of people say the Bucs’ OL is terrible and that’s a huge factor in Jameis’ performance, and a lot of the same people say DJ is washed when he ran behind a largely terrible OL in AZ. But I am concerned about his resilience. Dude is banged up a LOT, and even splitting his salary with AZ is a risk. I mean – $5M is a chunk that could be spent toward retaining a defensive piece, resigning Perriman, signing Brandon Scherff, or paying Jameis. I’d like to see some swapping of… Read more »